Initial Pilot Training:

Better Management Controls Are Needed to Improve FAA Oversight

GAO-12-117: Published: Nov 4, 2011. Publicly Released: Nov 15, 2011.


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Gerald Dillingham, Ph.D.
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Regional airlines have experienced the last six fatal commercial airline accidents, and pilot performance has been cited as a potential contributory factor in four of these accidents. As a result, Congress and others have raised questions about, among other issues, the initial pilot education and training required before pilots can be hired by airlines, at which time they receive further training. The initial training is provided by pilot schools overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). As requested, this report discusses (1) the various types of U.S. pilot schools, how they compare, and associated issues; (2) key similarities and differences between the U.S. and international approaches to pilot training; and (3) how and to what extent FAA carries out oversight of pilot training and certification. To address these issues, GAO reviewed literature, legislation, regulations, and FAA documents and inspection and enforcement data; interviewed agency and industry officials; and studied the training approach in Europe because of the different training model and visited four European countries.

The approximately 3,400 pilot schools in the United States can be divided into three types: (1) flight instructor based, (2) vocational, and (3) collegiate. The school types vary in several ways, but all pilot students must pass the same knowledge and flight tests to obtain a pilot certificate from FAA. Airline operations have evolved operationally and technologically, but the pilot training requirements for certification of commercial pilots were last revised in 1997. FAA and some industry stakeholders have indicated that current requirements for commercial pilots should incorporate additional training to improve the competency of entry-level regional airline pilots. FAA has initiated or planned a number of efforts to address these issues and recently enacted legislation requires FAA to implement regulations to increase pilot requirements for airlines by August 2013. The U.S. and Europe both offer the same pilot certifications but the training models differ, in part, due to training philosophies and other circumstances. The U.S. training approach emphasizes proficiency on actual flight training, while Europe's approach tends to emphasize academic instruction with more knowledge training requirements and testing. European pilot schools have also developed more comprehensive student screening processes than in the U.S. FAA has an annual inspection program that includes the oversight of pilot schools, pilot examiners, and flight instructors, the gatekeepers for the initial pilot training process. GAO analysis of FAA inspection data showed a 78 percent completion rate of the required inspections for pilot schools in fiscal year 2010, but, due to insufficient information, GAO was unable to determine completion percentages for prior years. Similarly, GAO could not determine 1) whether FAA completed the required inspections for pilot examiners or 2) the reasons that the discretionary inspections of flight instructors--which are generally optional--were conducted. Furthermore, FAA's national office does not adequately monitor the completion of annual inspection activities due, in part, to an inability to aggregate inspection data from the local district offices that conduct the inspections. Thus, FAA does not have a comprehensive system in place to adequately measure its performance in meeting annual inspection requirements, which could make it difficult to ensure regulatory compliance and that safety standards are being met.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: The officials said that after reviewing the 2012 60-day letter submitted to GAO, they realized that a mistake was made in the language included in the letter that not all inspections listed in NPG were required to be loaded into RAMPS and assigned and FAA's intent using RAMPS required that only one Operations and one Airworthiness inspection be accomplished annually for each Part 141 certificate holder. They concurred with GAO's original assessment and clarified that FAA's intent using RAMPS required that each of the five Operations inspections and each of the five Airworthiness inspections are required to be accomplished annually for each Part 141 certificate holder. This new language was incorporated into the changes in the edition of the Order 1800.56N, issued in August 2013, and was already being done through the RAMPS algorithms that generate R-items prior to that date. The officials also clarified that while under Airworthiness, the Order states that FAA will conduct one of each of the five following inspections for each air agency and satellite school certificated within the region (CHDO) that conducts flight training in aircraft, except where the school does not operate aircraft (ground and/or simulator instruction only). This means that if a Part 141 certificate holder does not operate aircraft at the school, no Airworthiness inspection items would be generated via the RAMPS algorithm and none of these inspection areas would be covered in annual inspection requirements. In the 60-day letter, FAA stated the GAO report acknowledged the steps that FAA had taken to improve oversight of designated pilot examiners (DPE), including quarterly assessment reports produced by the Flight Standards Regulatory Support Division. A new designee management system, which was under development, would provide more comprehensive data on DPE surveillance and performance. Deployment of the new system would begin in June 2012 for DPE and was scheduled to be completed by May 2013. Based on our early correspondence of recommendation follow up as we understand it, the transition of DPE oversight to the new designee management system (DMS) would address our recommendation. When we met in August 2014, the attending FAA folks indicated that the deployment of the new designee management system (DMS) had begun for two Aircraft Certification Service (AIR) designee types and for transitioning the Manufacturing Designee Program to the new system in July 2014. However, transition of the Designated Pilot Examines (DPE) would be part of DMS beginning with the 5th release which is scheduled to deploy in the 3rd quarter of fiscal year 2016 - or in the April to June 2016 time frame. In January 2016, FAA responded with an update that due to a significant system failure and unexpected delays with the development and deployment of DMS for another designee type, the schedule for Flight Standards development and implementation was also delayed. If no additional delays are encountered, deployment of DPEs, along with four other AFS designee types, will occur in January 2017.

    Recommendation: To improve FAA's oversight of pilot certification and training, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration to develop a comprehensive system that may include modifying or improving existing data systems to measure performance for meeting the annual National Program Guidelines' inspection requirements for pilot schools with a Part 141 certificate and pilot examiners.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation: Federal Aviation Administration

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: In July 2012, FAA requested to close this recommendation as "not implemented" due to the lack of available funding for implementing the required modifications to SPAS for addressing this recommendation. The officials explained that after two consecutive years of requesting the funds and not being approved, they have determined this project will be not funded in the near future. Given FAA's numerous other funding priorities, upper management has signaled that it would be futile to continue requesting any funding for this project. When inquiring about FAA's statement that absent funding, FAA will continue to analyze other options to assess risk within the systems we use for oversight of flight training providers, including the creation and implementation of alternate methods for risk-based oversight to identify certified flight instructors or schools requiring additional surveillance, the officials explained they had considered other ways. Currently within SPAS, there are a number of analytical reporting capabilities that support the performance and risk monitoring of individual air personnel. These capabilities include structured queries that provide the ability to search and view air personnel data obtained from external sources, as well as a set of automated performance measurement and flagging capabilities that support early warning risk identification for individual airmen. However, there are several system deficiencies in the tool set that limit their usefulness for monitoring the safety performance and risk posed by pilot examiners, flight instructors, and other types of air personnel. They said these limitations dissuade field inspectors from using these features. So, absent funding to make necessary SPAS modifications, they have considered incorporating some risk monitoring tools and flagging capabilities for the oversight of flight instructors in the development of the Safety Assurance System (SAS). AFS-900 is the lead on development of SAS, which is Flight Standards next evolution for its certification and surveillance system. SAS is risk-based and incorporates data-supported decision making oversight and expected to be deployed online in 2018. However, they cautioned that any proposed implementation for general aviation (GA) oversight within SAS, which would include the oversight of flight instructors is a ways off. In light of this, AFS-800 is working on an alternative process for a risk-based oversight approach for flight instructors in the interim. The officials said they should have an update for a proposal on this within the next 60 days.

    Recommendation: To improve FAA's oversight of pilot certification and training, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration to develop a comprehensive system that may include modifying or improving existing data systems to better understand the nature and scope of the discretionary, planned inspections for flight instructors.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation: Federal Aviation Administration


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